There are a number of different types of experiential therapies. All of these therapies have their origin in the experiential schools of psychology that include Gestalt therapy and the humanistic paradigm in psychology. These paradigms encourage change in individuals by having them examine their emotions, intuitions, and other tendencies regarding certain types of situations.
Instead, wilderness therapy is a complementary form of treatment designed to assist in a more traditional type of treatment (e.g., formal Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for substance use disorders).
It is typically part of a multidisciplinary team approach to the treatment of an individual where the individual participates in traditional individual psychotherapy, may participate in group therapy, may participate in social support groups, and participates in wilderness therapy.
Wilderness therapy is delivered by a person trained in this type of therapy.
Wilderness therapy offers a number of potential avenues to get people involved in self-discovery. For the most part, wilderness therapies are delivered to younger individuals, most often adolescents and young adults. In some cases, adults will participate in wilderness therapy. Wilderness therapy is often an excellent mode of intervention to get individuals with substance use disorders to open up and freely express themselves.
When the activity is completed, each participant meets with their therapist in either an individual or group session and discusses aspects of their experience. These aspects of the individual’s experience are related to the person’s issues (e.g., having a lack of trust, being suspicious of others, etc.). The discussion is designed to foster the therapeutic end of the experience for the client. The actual activities are a means to self-discovery; they are not an end in their own right. Without the therapeutic application and reflection of the experience, wilderness therapy would not qualify as a formal form of therapy.
The key to the therapeutic intervention in wilderness therapy is the therapist’s ability to help the client reflect on aspects of their experience and directly apply them to other areas of life, such as their substance use disorder. This type of intervention requires specific training and focus. In addition, wilderness therapy is not often viewed as “therapy” by those that participate in it. Instead, they often view it as a break from therapy, when in fact it is a form of therapeutic intervention that is designed to help individuals experience themselves and engage in self-discovery.
Wilderness therapy is an adjunctive therapy that may be extremely useful in the treatment of substance use disorders in certain types of individuals, particularly young people or adolescents who are isolated and uncooperative in their treatment. Wilderness therapy attempts to challenge individuals to achieve goals and work together. This fosters communication, openness, and self-examination.
While wilderness therapy can be a useful complementary treatment, it is not designed to be a standalone treatment or the sole focus of treatment for an individual with a substance use disorder or other psychological problem.